Monday, October 22, 2012

Vatican II at Fifty: One Deacon's Reflection

The following was written last week, but only posted now because of technical difficulties.

October 11, Vatican City: 1962, 2012

I apologize for not being an active blogger since last July, but what better time to start up again than today, the fiftieth anniversary of the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Council?  Through the generosity of my bishop and my university, I am here in Rome as I write this reflection.  I am here primarily to attend meetings related to our new St. Lawrence Institute here in Rome; a marvelous coincidence of events put us here for this grand celebration surrounding Vatican II and the initiation of a Year of Faith for the New Evangelization.

It will take many years, probably the rest of my life, to reflect fully on this day.  This is but a poor initial attempt.

First, a word about the cassock I am wearing in this photograph, for those who might be interested/curious/upset/confused/angry/offended!  The communication with the Holy See about those of us who were to assist with the liturgy was, to say the least, confusing.  One day we'd get an e-mail that said to bring no special attire or vestments at all.  Then the next day, we would be told to bring cassocks (sottani), and then the next day, we were to bring albs only.  And around it went.  So, finally, I brought a cassock and an alb. Tonight, I was still in it from earlier.  More about THAT in a moment as well.  And for those who still are confused: what I'm wearing is CLERICAL attire, not simply PRIESTLY attire.  Since deacons are clergy, it's OK.  Not something I want to do every day, but somehow it seemed to fit here and at this celebration.

This morning's papal Mass was exciting of course.  We were told to be at the altar at 8:00 AM for a final rehearsal.  I was part of a team of 12 deacons who were going to distribute communion to the cardinal/bishop concelebrants.  There were dozens of other priests and deacons who distributed communion to the non-concelebrating priests and bishops and deacons and the faithful.  The rehearsal went well and we were taken to a special sacristy where the 12 of us were to vest along with all the Cardinals.  The bishop-concelebrants vested in another sacristy.  Why they put us with the Cardinals is a Vatican mystery.  I spoke briefly to Cardinal Rigali before vesting.  I didn't see Cardinal Dolan until later.  Then, personal disappointment struck.  It seems that the only dalmatics they had for the 12 of us were very, VERY short ones.  So short, in fact, that when I put mine on, it looked like a surplice, not a dalmatic.  The Franciscan priest who is the head Sacristan scurried around trying to find something else, but in that style there was nothing, so two of us tall guys had to drop out of the group. I was given a good seat among the bishops and priests just to the side of the papal altar, however, so I was able to see what was going on.  I would have loved to assist, of course, but that was a personal disappointment that in the grand scheme of things just doesn't matter.

Some general observations, and these are just mine.  I haven't read or seen any press accounts yet so I don't know what else has been said.  First, during the whole run-up to this event, the correspondence has focused on this Mass as the beginning of the Year of Faith for the New Evangelization.  Almost no mention whatsoever was made about this being the golden anniverary of Vatican II.  As an Italian friend put it, "Many here don't really want to focus on the Council."  Yesterday, before our first rehearsal, I spoke with some of the pilgrims who had come, and it was clear how much work remains to be done.  One lady asked me, as she entered St. Peter's Basilica, what all the preparations were for. I explained that the pope was going to have a big celebration today,  "Oh," she said, "does the pope say Mass in this church?"  Still another pilgrim asked what the big Mass was going to be for, I responded that it was to commemorate the beginning of Vatican II.  "What's that?", he asked, and then laughing at his own wit, he continued, "so there was a Vatican I sometime, huh?"  For these folks, the Basilica was simply an interesting sight to see on vacation without any particular connection to their daily lives.  And certainly, Vatican II had no more meaning for them than any other distant event of history.

Today, however, the Pope, in his homily, spoke warmly of the Council, as did Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.  Another connection to the Council came at the end of the Mass.  First, a bit of history.  On December 8, 1965, at the solemn closing of the Council, a series of "Messages" were given from the Council Fathers to various groups of people: to statesmen and politicians, to artists, to young people, to medical professionals, to workers, and so on.  At that time, these messages were given by various Council Fathers, and they were presented in French.  All of this was to communicate that the messages were coming from all of the Council Fathers and that they were intended for wide distribution; French at that time was considered the language of international communication and diplomacy, a kind of "universal" language.  At today's Mass, the Pope invited up representatives from each of these same groups and presented a souvenir copy of the original messages.  Curiously, I thought, however, the souvenir copy was printed only in Latin and in Italian, not in the original French.  I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by this, since it seems to miss the "universal" intent of the messages themselves.  Still, it was a nice nod to the Council.

However, there was another aspect of the Mass which I found even more disconcerting.  On the upper platform were hundreds of bishops and Cardinals, priests and deacons; two choirs, multiple Masters of Ceremonies: all of the pomp and ceremony one could expect at a papal Mass.  About halfway through the Mass, however, I turned to look at the rest of St. Peter's Square and I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be almost no one there.  Using the famous obelisk as a reference point, it was clear that the crowd in the Square didn't even come close to extending that far.  The impression from where I was sitting was that, essentially, the Square was empty.  Given the fact that this was the occasion being used to inaugurate a Year of Faith dedicated to the New Evangelization, the relative emptiness of the Square seemed to emphasize both the lack of "connectedness" the average person has for the institutional dimensions of Church today.  Obviously it also highlighted the need for the Church to find more powerful ways to reach out and to connect with the everyday lives of people.  That was the whole point of the Council fifty years ago, and it remains as vital a mission today!

After Mass, my two friends and I agreed upon where we would meet later in the day for supper and planning for our meetings the next day.  So, for supper (cena) we met at a little place a few hundred years from St. Peter's.  We then decided to walk over to the Square and see what was going on.  What was going on was remarkable.  But first, some more history.

Fifty years ago, one the opening night of the Council, thousands upon thousands of people came to St. Peter's Square to pray for the success of the Council.  I'm attaching a link here so you can watch it.  It was a stunning sight, to say the least!  If you look at the video closely, you will see that the crowd not only fills the entire Square: it looks like it reaches back to the Tiber!  And then, the best bit: Pope John XXIII comes to his window and addresses the crowd.  He speaks of the moon looking down on this wonderful spectacle, so his remarks are sometimes referred to as the "Discourse to the Moon" ("discorso della Luna") or similar titles.  At the end, he tells everyone to go home and to embrace their children, and to tell the children that this embrace is from the Pope.  For people who were there, this event was one of the most significant of their lives.

Now, fifty years later, my friends and I walked into the Square and it was full of people, many carrying candles, singing songs and praying.  It wasn't nearly as large as that original crowd fifty years ago, but it was still a stunning sight.  As "empty" as the Square had seemed that morning was contrasted vividly by how full it was tonight.  HERE and NOW the Church was connecting with people.  Sure enough, the light in the papal apartment was lit, and at 9:00 PM Rome time, Pope Benedict appeared at the window.  He recalled Pope John's famous remarks, and the crowd roared its appreciation of that memory.

Leaving the Square tonight, I was left with a feeling that this desire for connectedness is the heart of what we seek in our understanding of communio and evangelization.  The whole point of Vatican II was to serve as an act of evangelization, and Pope Paul VI himself referred to the Council as "the great Catechism of our day."  The "New Evangelization" is not really so new; it is, and remains, the perpetual mission of the Church since Pentecost: to offer Christ to a world in pain in the Spirit of God who loves, sustains and provides for us.

For now, I've rambled long enough.  More soon.


  1. That's one powerful ramble - you have me all teary eyed, due to those final paragraphs. Thank you for your recounting, thank you for all!

  2. Worth the wait. Many thanks for the post

  3. Hey Deacon Bill, I would love to consult you some question at a private level. Could I have any e-mail to do so, please? Much obliged.